November 8, 2015 – Proper 27B
© 2015 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
A few weeks ago, someone who has helped out several times with Wednesday-night dinners mentioned to me that she had never seen inside our church. I smiled. “Let’s go,” I said, “right now.” One of the privileges of working and worshipping at St. John’s is that I get to show people how beautiful our church is. I like to bring them into this space when it is almost dark and then watch their faces brighten and their jaws drop as I turn on the lights and they begin to soak in the beauty of this place. That evening was no different. Standing there, spinning around in all directions, she kept whispering to herself, “Wow! It’s amazing! My goodness!” It wasn’t long before we needed to head back into the kitchen, but I could tell that all of this had left a lasting impression on her. I invited her to come back when she would have more time to walk around and look at the windows and sit in a pew and just be in God’s presence.
This is a remarkable church. This is a holy place. And other people seem to notice. Over the past week and a half, St. John’s has been featured in the Decatur Daily several times. First, there was the picture of the staff dressed up as the Addams Family—no mistake for holiness there. But then it was an image of two of our windows, one of St. John and one of St. Stephen, two of the saints whom we celebrated on All Saints’ Day. I knew in advance that those pictures would run, but there was another one that I didn’t expect to see. Gary Cosby’s “Behind the Lens” feature showcased a photograph of a window from our chapel—a clear-glass, cruciform window with the open lectern bible beneath it.
As the photographer explained in his description of the picture, he didn’t expect to find the subject for his last ever feature in the Daily there, but, when he “stumbled across it,” he knew it was the image that captured his feeling that God had “opened a door” for him to come here twenty-one years ago and was opening a new door as he prepared to leave. What a remarkable sentiment! Although I see that spot in our church several times every week, it still surprised me to see it in the paper. I wasn’t expecting it. I wasn’t expecting to see such a clear and perfectly composed expression of holiness in a spot I see (and take for granted) all of the time. It’s funny, isn’t it, how God shows up even where we don’t expect to see him.
What about you: where do you see God? Where do you see him at work? Where do you look for him? Where do you expect to find him? And where is it that he surprises you when he shows up?
Today’s gospel lesson is all about God showing up in surprising places. It’s about seeing God at work in surprising ways. It’s about finding God where you least expect him, and learning to look for him when he is hiding in plain sight.
A scribe and a widow. Try to see them through the lens of ancient history. One is dressed in finest linen, and the other is covered in a tatter shroud. One walks about smiling and waving and nodding his head when others say hello, and the other keeps to herself, with her head bowed, shuffling her feet as she goes. One is figure of power and control, and the other is an emblem of helplessness and hopelessness. One is rich, and the other is poor. One knows that his future is secure, and the other just hopes to make it until tomorrow. One gives the appearance of success, and the other is a symbol of failure. One is respected—even revered—by his peers, and the other is avoided as a reminder of what life could be like if everything went wrong. One enjoys a life of blessing, and the other lives a life of daily struggle and suffering. One teaches God’s precepts in the temple, and the other is the definition of one from whom God’s blessing has been withdrawn. Looking through the eyes of one of Jesus’ contemporaries, where would you expect to see holiness? Or what about using your modern sight? If these two characters were found in downtown Decatur, whom would you expect to be an example of how God is working in the world?
All of us are familiar enough with the Christian story to know the “right” answer. We know that God loves the underdog. We know that God delights in the poor and the oppressed, the widow and the orphan. We know that Jesus teaches us, “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God; blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted; blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” We know all that. We know that, in the gospel, rich and powerful and religious is almost always a recipe for criticism. So why, then, are we still surprised when God shows up where we least expect it?
Where should we look for God? Who among us is the real symbol of holiness? Is it not the single mother who works two jobs so that her children can have a decent place to live? What about the alcoholic who has been sober for three days and wants the world to know how thankful he is to be alive? And don’t forget about the curmudgeonly ninety-year-old woman at the nursing home who smells funny and isn’t very nice and always wants tells you the same story about how much she loved her husband before he died. If you stopped long enough to listen—if you took enough time to look below the surface—isn’t that where you would find God at work—in the tough, hard places where hope is the only thing left for people to cling to?
Do not look for God in people or in places where holiness is only skin-deep. God is not at work when an image of godliness is only projected for its own sake. In fact, as the example of the scribes teaches us, the pretense of holiness can actually work against God and what God wants for the world. No matter how beautiful this place is, God will not be at work here unless we care more about the poor than about ourselves. No matter how diligent we are in going to church and saying our prayers, we will not be holy until our hearts belong first and foremost to those who cling to hope.
Look around. Look at this place. Look at us. Look at what we’re wearing. Listen to our long prayers. Like it or not, we are the scribes. But that doesn’t mean that we aren’t searching for holiness. Where will we find it? If God is with the widow and the orphan, the addict and the prisoner, we will not find him until we learn to look through the eyes of those who have given up everything. We will not find holiness until we learn to let go of everything that we have and join those who live where our Lord is to be found. May everything we do and everything we give be about the work of the gospel. May all our offerings be devoted to the work of Jesus.